Like many Horror Aficionados, I started dabbling in the genre at a young age. Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, Goosebumps and anything Christopher Pike ever wrote could probably be found on all our shelves in grade school. As I moved further into my adolescence, I desired a more “grown-up” version of horror and made my way through the works of Poe and Dante’s Inferno. While I adored all the stories that I experienced in those years, there was still a void that only a specific variety of terror could fill. Being thrilled was ok for a while but, I had yet to find even one story that left me even slightly shaken. A friend must have overheard me whining about this at some point and said “if you really want to read something messed up, read Exquisite Corpse by Poppy Z. Brite. It’s gross.” Perfect. Just what I was looking for.
Seventeen years and six rereads later, Exquisite Corpse is still my favorite novel that I have been shouting at people to read.
The story follows Andrew Compton; serial killer, artist, confirmed as dead and Jay Byrne; playboy, artist and local creep on a collision course towards obtaining their ultimate piece of modeling clay, a young exotic man by the name of Tran. You may envision Spanish moss, beignets and Mardi Gras when you think of News Orleans, where our story takes place, however, Brite navigates the darker, grittier parts of the Big Easy with far more dangerous debauchery. Written shortly after the peak of the AIDS epidemic, we are introduced to a small additional group of characters that are infected with the HIV virus. I find these characters particularly interesting as Brite uses them as vehicles for hate, self-loathing and confusion. Your heart breaks a little for them yet, the world they create for themselves is fascinating and inevitably overlaps with that of Andrew and Jay, with Tran as their conduit.
This book is always a nostalgic experience for me, as it reminds me of how I did not slowly dip my toes into horror as a younger adult but, took a full-on bloody plunge. This book will not be for everyone. I could list a slew of trigger warnings but, just know it is not for the faint of heart. Part Gore-tastic part Gore-rotica, this book is full of morbidly descriptive moments of horror of the worst kind; person on person. Yet, Brite took a grisly, violent story and turned it into macabre poetry. She may be the only author I have read that can make such violence seem beautiful. That is what these characters do to you. They convince you that their unspeakable crimes are in fact beautiful art. For a moment you will find yourself possibly agreeing with them.
You’re not supposed to like these characters in this book. They’re all obsessive and narcissistic criminals in their own rite yet, you do. You will like all of them. Not only will you like them, but you will also want them to succeed in their own horrific personal missions. This is another testament to how Brite can reach inside your head and poke at your amygdala until you give in to the dark side. This alliance you develop with the villains will have you questioning what the hell is wrong with you for cheering on such horror.
Rest assured my friends, you’re at home here.
You can find Keely on Instagram @keelyfuse85
Andrew Compton does the unthinkable. He fakes his own death to escape from prison so that he can fulfill his desire to create art again. His art? The possession, torture, and destruction of young boys to satisfy his sexual urges. He ends up leaving London’s Piccadilly Circus to avoid capture and to wreak havoc on the French Quarter of New Orleans. While there, hunting for new boys to destroy, he meets his Cajun counterpart in the form of Jay Byrne.
Jay has a no-so-secret-admirer in Tran, a young Vietnamese-American runaway. Tran is vibrant and youthful and beautiful. Tran is also troubled by his ex, Luke Ransom because Luke is still obsessed with him. Luke is dying of AIDS and on a warpath to his deathbed. The four characters' paths all connect in the bloody conclusion of this book.
I have a friend who is a fellow Night Worms blogger. Her name is Keely and she just gets me. She has a strong stomach and loves hardcore horror as I do. We both have a hard time finding gore that gets to us or horror that really scares us. So when I asked her what book she would recommend to me, she shot back immediately with Exquisite Corpse by Poppy Z. Brite. The author dedicated this gruesome book to their mom and as soon as I read that I was sold. I am so glad that I took her recommendation and read this book because I can now pass this book on to other people who also have a strong stomach and want to find some beautifully written horror.
There is some horror that is fun. All of those campy, slasher novels with buckets of blood and tropes for days. Then there is horror that is serious. It almost seems poetic in the way that it’s written. It’s the kind of horror that you never forget and the kind of horror that makes you think back on it years after you’ve read it. Exquisite Corpse falls in the latter of those two categories.
I loved how this book really got into the head of our main antagonist, Andrew Compton. I found his thought process to be interestingly dark and disturbing. I really like that the author wrote characters that you were not supposed to connect to or fall in love with. The first person narrating in this book is from inside the head of a serial killer, we aren’t meant to like him.
The settings of this book were wonderfully told. The descriptions of New Orleans are lush and evocative. Not only are the places perfectly set, but the time period they took place in is as well. Exquisite corpse came out in 1996 and the story takes place during the early years of the AIDS panic. The entire plot of this book circles around gay characters and it is poignant and touching. Reading about what their lives are like and the things they think about during this time period is fascinating and painful.
I have read a lot of reviews on this book and there are plenty that I think misses the point of this book. People that can’t see the message of this book through the blood, as it were. Yes, this book is one of the goriest and brutal books I think I may have ever read. Yes, there is a ton of violence and quite explicit scenes. But this book is meant to be brutal. It is meant to show us how some people’s minds work in relation to love and death. We are meant to feel nauseous while we’re reading this book.
Exploring the romance of two serial killers is tough. It’s a hard thing to read. But Brite writes in such a beautiful and poetic way that sometimes you forget that you’re reading about cannibalism or torture. I know that that makes me sound a little weird, but I am willing to take on that title if it means admitting to the fact that this book is excellent. At times, when you’re picturing certain scenes in your mind’s eye, you know you are supposed to feel grossed-out and upset, but the writing in this book is beyond amazing and it makes you forget about how terrible these scenes truly are.
The acts of sex and murder in this book are described so vividly that it is something I will never forget and definitely something that I will have a reread of every so often. This book is only for those interested in the inner workings of a serial killer's mind who also have an iron stomach. It is only for those ready to have feelings that they know are wrong. If you’re ready to question your own morality, read this book.